In this post, I’ll share what my subject selection process looks like and the questions I ask myself in determining if a subject is worth painting. This is an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention. Most of my “painting” time is spent searching for inspiration and interesting subjects to paint.
(Before diving into this post, make sure to download a free copy of my Beginner's Guide to Painting.)
Overview of My Subject Selection Process
Here’s what my subject selection process broadly looks like:
Step 1. Gather inspiration and ideas.
Step 2. Create a shortlist of promising subjects.
Step 3. Narrow it down to one using certain criteria.
Step 4. Time to paint!
Sometimes this process happens within a few minutes, and sometimes it happens over days or weeks. It’s dynamic, not fixed. Also, keep in mind that this is just what I do and what works for me might not work for you. Don’t ever feel pressured into following my lead or that of other artists.
I’ll go into more detail on each step below.
Step 1. Gather Inspiration and Ideas
This step is a constant for me. I’m always gathering inspiration and ideas. Though some times are more urgent than others, such as when a blank canvas has been sitting on my easel for a while.
The most important thing is to be proactive. Stay busy and always be on the lookout for ideas and subjects. As Pablo Picasso put it:
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”
Visiting new places helps. Particularly hard-to-reach places. For whatever reason, I find the best inspiration at hard-to-reach places—mountain peaks, on long hikes, or while exploring the wilderness. If I stay inside my studio, it doesn’t take long for inspiration to dry up.
It also helps to do activities outside of art. For me, that means fishing, kayaking, running, weight lifting, spending time with my family, or visiting the local parks. This helps relax my mind so that ideas can come more freely. Forcing yourself to be switched on all the time is counterproductive and leads to burnout. Time away from the easel is essential.
I always carry a camera (my phone) to take photos of potential subjects. I have accumulated thousands of reference photos over the years. I also frequently write notes about subjects, ideas, and observations. Ideas are fleeting and I must record them on the spot.
I also like to do studies or sketches on location. These complement reference photos nicely. Photos are convenient but there’s no substitute for studies done right there and then.
Step 2. Create a Shortlist of Promising Subjects
This step is all about sifting through the vast amount of inspiration and ideas and finding gold. I don’t go too deep on this step. Rather, I step back and look at everything from afar. If anything catches my attention, I take a closer look and consider adding it to the shortlist.
In practice, this usually involves going through my recent photos and “starring” any that have potential. This saves them in a favorites folder on my phone (which you can see in the screenshot below). I might also take a look at my recent sketches and studies. If a study or sketch appears promising, I’ll take a photo of it and add it to the favorites folder for easy reference.
Step 3. Narrow It Down to One (Nine Questions I ask Myself)
To determine if a subject is worth painting, I broadly run through the following questions:
What’s the big idea? This will form the foundation of the painting. The stronger the idea, the stronger the painting. The idea doesn’t need to be complex. It might be as simple as an interesting display of light and shadow. But it needs to be strong enough to compel you to paint it.
Does it have any sentimental significance? Perhaps the subject is a child or relative, or a familiar landscape, or the home where you grew up. Sentimental feelings are powerful and can form the backbone of a painting. They also add a personal element to your work.
Is it appropriate for my skill level (not too easy or too hard)? The subject should be challenging but not too far outside your current skill level. If you’re just starting out, trying to paint a Sargent-like portrait from life would likely end in tears and a muddy canvas.
Do I need to make any adjustments? Is there a way to convey the subject in a better and more interesting way? Can I crop the photo or capture the subject from a different perspective? Sometimes a few adjustments can take a subject from good to great.
What does the finished painting look like? If I cannot see the subject as a finished painting, or I don’t like what I see, then the subject isn’t worth painting.
Does it excite me? I should feel compelled to pick up a brush and paint the subject.
What medium will I use? Some subjects have characteristics that suit certain mediums. For example, oils are particularly effective at capturing the texture and detail of the landscape. Whereas watercolors are particularly effective for “quiet” and delicate subjects. This means the medium I want to work with will somewhat dictate what subject I paint.
Are there opportunities to exercise my artistic license and showcase my skills and techniques as an artist? I prefer subjects where I have a bit of room to move in terms of my artistic license and showcasing a bit of flare.
Do I want to paint it? This is a simple but important question. Sometimes a subject will tick all the boxes but for whatever reason, I feel no urge to paint it. Perhaps it’s just not the right time, or perhaps I don’t feel confident in accepting the challenge.
Step 4. Time to Paint!
Once I have selected the subject, it’s time to get to work. I find it important to get straight into it. Strike while the subject is fresh in my mind and I’m excited to paint it. Don’t procrastinate.
It’s also important to carry the ideas and energy through the rest of the painting process. What was it about the subject that initially caught my eye? What were my first impressions of the subject? This must be conveyed through the painting.
Other Tips and Comments
If there’s a subject I want to paint but I’m not completely convinced, I’ll often sit on it for a day or two. If I want to paint it after that, then I get to work.
There are also times when a subject is so intriguing and compelling that I must paint it immediately. I listen to these feelings; there’s usually a reason for them.
It’s essential that the subject sparks some kind of excitement in me. I must be excited to paint it. Otherwise, why bother? I have many other things I could be doing. Most of my failed paintings started without a spark or enthusiasm for the subject. Usually, it was a subject that looked appealing from a technical standpoint but otherwise didn’t excite me. Trying to force a painting out of these subjects is a bad idea. This is why I spend so much time looking for ideas and inspiration. Truly interesting and exciting subjects are hard to come by. You must put in the work to discover them.
Some Recent Subjects and Why I Painted Them
I’ll run you through a few of my recent subjects and why I painted them.
Chontele and Elora in the Garden, 2022
Why I painted this subject:
- It’s a sentimental subject with Chontele and Elora in my parents’ backyard, where I spent much of my childhood. I tried to convey my feelings and energy through the painting.
- It has an interesting color theme, with the sea of greens as a background against the soft pastel colors of Chontele and Elora.
- Chontele and Elora have a subtle glow as light bounces off them.
- It’s a challenging subject, but not out of reach. I mostly paint landscapes and this was one of my first attempts at including people.
- There are opportunities for conveying interesting brushwork in the background.
Fraser Island, Sunset, 2023
Why I painted this subject:
- Chontele and I got married on this trip.
- The sunset colors are striking and contrast nicely against the dark jetty colors.
- There are opportunities for using broken color and energetic brushwork to convey the sky and water.
- There are a few subtle and interesting details, such as the green lights and vague figures along the jetty.
- The composition is strong and appealing.
Perth Gardens, 2023
Why I painted this subject:
- It captures a pleasant memory from Perth. Chontele, Elora, and I traveled there at the start of 2023. This was one of the gardens. This was just after we failed to make our way through one of those large hedge mazes.
- It’s a challenging subject with a vast amount of information. I had to simplify in order to make sense of it all.
- There’s a beautiful dance of color and light and it’s interesting how one area melts into the next.
- There are opportunities to showcase visible brushwork, color variance, and texture.
- Stay busy and always be on the lookout for ideas and subjects. As Picasso put it, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”
- I find the best inspiration at hard-to-reach places—mountain peaks, on long hikes, or while exploring the wilderness. If I stay inside my studio, it doesn’t take long for inspiration to dry up.
- It’s counterproductive to be always switched on and thinking about painting. Time away from the easel is a must.
- When sorting through all your inspiration and ideas, take a step back and look at everything from afar. If anything catches your attention, take a closer look and consider adding it to the shortlist.
- It’s essential that a subject sparks some kind of excitement in you. You must be excited to paint it. Otherwise, why bother?
- It’s important to carry all the ideas and energy from subject selection through the rest of the painting process. What was it about the subject that initially caught my eye? What were my first impressions of the subject? This must be conveyed through the painting.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post. Feel free to share with friends. If you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to add them to the comment section below. If you ever want to learn more, start with my fundamentals course.